March 3–April 15, 2023
In this solo show, the French artist JR confronts the crisis of refugee children around the world as well as what is visible versus invisible. Working from photographs of children, usually in groups, he reproduces their negatives on a large scale, mostly entirely in white. Surrounding them is a black background created with ink. The title of the show, translated into English as “The Children of Ouranos,” references Ouranos, the heavenly deity who fathered the Titans. As a personification of the sky Ouranos might be understood both as progenitor and protector of the anonymous, beleaguered children seen in JR’s works of art. The childrens’ lack of identifying features turn them nearly into abstract figures, surrounded by darkness and doom. This transforms their presence into something universal, and thus more powerful. JR’s approach, symbolic in nature, can be read simply as the image is experienced, or it can be seen as something larger than that. But, we do need the backstory to make specific sense of what we are seeing. These images were taken in conversation with JR’s “Déplacé-e-s,” a series conceived with refugee populations around the world, which presented 120 foot-long banners of young children playfully running, carried through refugee camps or cities to pay homage to hope and the power of children’s dreams.
The works from Les Enfants d’Ouranos themselves are dramatic and highly political—if, as I commented, we know the story behind them. In Les Enfants d’Ouranos, Bois #9 (2022) we meet a striking image of a single boy, with his right hand upraised and his left hand extended at waist level. Despite the fact that his figure is entirely white, we can make out a jacket that comes down just over his hips. His face has no features, but the form of the figure is assertive, perhaps ecstatic. The image is a positive assertion in the face of loss.
The artwork titled Les Enfants d’Ouranos, Bois #13 (2022) consists of two boys, this time colored in black as well as white, running toward the left. A tall black wall stands behind them, and they seem to be passing over a muddy surface, both dark and light in tone. What are the two children running from? Because we have knowledge of the circumstances inspiring these images, we tend to see them as symbolic of the plight of refugees. But, on another level, it is a simple image—a striking one, albeit without public meaning. Reading the work as symbolic of a socially difficult life is hard to do, since the images yield no actual information. Their presence is emblematic, not descriptive in particular. The lack of evident political meaning might be used as a criticism of the work; the wall texts become too important in understanding these simple but striking images. However, given the lack of context, the figures, joyfully playing, carry a sense of power and freedom.
In another artwork, Les Enfants d’Ouranos, Bois #15 (2022), a group of six children stand to the right of a tall, open structure supported by thin posts, with a ladder on the left leading to a flat platform extending a few feet above them. Again, the bottom of the floor looks half solid, half liquid. We have no real idea of what the meaning of the structure might be—is it symbolic in the sense that it will allow the children to climb? Whatever is to be made of the image, the structure suggests a means of support.
Les Enfants d’Ouranos, Bois #6 (2022) is a striking image consisting of a photo negative of eight boys, likely in their middle teens, hunched over as they run. The detail of the photo allows us to see the intent gaze of the figures. Running appears to be a major theme for JR. What are the two people running toward, or what are they fleeing from? We can only speculate. The background materials suggest the images are a concerted attempt to preserve the dignity of the dislocated and dispossessed. JR’s motive seems to be an attempt to report, quite literally in black-and-white, the consequences of an international crisis. He succeeds completely in doing so.